In one of Arup’s London offices is an array of speakers designed to help architects and acoustic engineers hear how the designs of their spaces will sound when complete. It’s called an ambisonic array. Virtual sound models for proposed concert halls can be created and reproduced using this array to give the designer an idea of how the concert hall will literally sound. The virtual model can be changed to asses the qualities of different experiences. Wouldn’t it be good, though the designers at Arup, if this ambisonic array could be experienced by everyone and become not a sterile laboratory environment but a place to experience sound? The London Design Festival and the sponsorship of BE OPEN, gave a team at Arup the opportunity to create this. Taking Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey as an inspiration for the mood of the Sound Portal, Arup created an intimidating black rubber shape that sits in the centre of Trafalgar Square but which opens up to reveal light and sky within. The facility provides the perfect environment for some of the most thoughtful and innovative recording artists in the world, including one of my favourite Tom Jenkinson a.k.a. Squarepusher I spoke to him about using ambisonic arrays and exploring sound in three dimensions.
[speaking into phone microphone] Hello phone.
Can you tell us about your brief or at least the part of the brief you latched on to?
The main part of it for me was the mode of reproduction of sound i.e. the ambisonics array of speakers. In any case that’s what made it interesting because that’s something I’ve not worked with at all. I’ve only ever worked with two channels and this is nine channels.
Ambisonic technology is a bit confusing for a lay person. How would you describe it?
The ambisonic array are 9 speakers that are arranged in 3 equilateral triangles, that sits one above the other. One at foot level, one at the height of your mid rift and one above your head and what that makes available to the musician is the capacity to locate sound in a space i.e. anywhere within the confines of the portal.
How did you program the music to behave in a three-dimensional way?
There are various ways of doing it. The suggested way was to submit the files in B Format, which is an x, y, z based way of composing audio. 3 Dimensional. However I worked directly with the nine channels. There are various ways of approaching it, i was more concerned to make as an extreme use of the 3D capacity as possible.
Sound does modulate between speakers. At various points in the piece the sound does swing around the room. At other points they appear by surprise. I tried to explore a few different approaches to it.
How did you compose it?
It was written on a nylon-string guitar. The core of it and the motivation to what I did was to go a little beyond the gimmickry which i think this sort of projects might potentially suffer from. Suffering form something which demonstrates the 3D sound capacity without actually the content or the material itself being that interesting.
Like the opening of the advertisements at an iMAX?
Yes, it’s a woosh that says ‘listen the sound is going around the room!’ but the sound itself is not that interesting. What I tried to do is start form a core of a musically satisfying piece of work and build out and extrapolate for this playback system. I used a specially modified classical guitar which had separate outputs for each string which means that you can isolate notes and then place them within the nine channel system.
So you are fragmenting the sound?
Absolutely. it’s separating it into the most ireduceable elements. Normally you hear a guitar and its a composite sound but is actually several sources in addition to the sound being reverberated through the body of the guitar. In my instance I’ve got six individual strings.
What will it be like to listen to in this space?
It’s subjective isn’t it? If you are bang in the middle for my piece you should experience various formations of sound, both clockwise and anti-clockwise motion. That’s one of the things I tried to keep constant throughout the piece. A sense of rotational motion around the room but also vertical displacement to. They are all done according to set patterns that have been mathematically worked out. So although the piece is itself broadly speaking, most overtly a piece of music, I’ve extrapolated in a mathematical way.
Is this a viable means of sound reproduction or just a gimmick?
It’s very much down to how it is used. Like early stereo usage was hampered by these idiotic records which simply demonstrate without being interesting in their own right the displacement between two speakers. I think there is a danger of it becoming gimmicky but there is also of it becoming a very established thing because it is so expensive.
How could this evolve into a next generation of music reproduction? What would need to happen?
I think partly that’s a commercial thing. 5.1 surround sound has taken off at home because there is a big money to be made by the people who generate artefacts in 5.1 form. There’s a strong commcerial incentive. No-one currently works in this format. It would take that kind of combined momentum of commercial interest and artistic interest. So goodness knows. I think its a fascinating thing to explore music in three dimensions, although I’m not convinced that everyone will want that all the time, as fascinating as it is as a one-off advaenture and a single experience.